The lady in question’s real name was Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (born this day in 1869). Adelina Patti was one of the great opera singers of the 19th century. Sissieretta was called “the Black Patti” in the way one might call Paul Robeson “the Black Caruso” or the way Spike Lee used to be called “the Black Woody Allen“. Meant as a compliment, it is equally an insult and Ms. Jones disliked the nickname even if her practical side allowed it to be used for promotional purposes.
One of the first “legit” stage singers of African American origin, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and made her concert debut at New York Steinway Hall in 1888. She performed at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, and embarked on a lucrative world tour, before launching in 1896 the twenty year enterprise for which she is best known today, the traveling show called Black Patti’s Troubadors (later Black Patti’s Musical Comedy Company). The first half of the was a book musical, the second half a vaudeville bill, both created by and starring African American talent. Talents she nurtured over the years included Will Marion Cook, Sissle and Blake, Cole and Johnson, and Miller and Lyles. She retired in 1916 to the town where she grew up, Providence, R.I., and passed away in 1933.
Here’s a nice little piece on her by the Carnegie Hall Archives:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc